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This is really a ‘conversational’ post as it’s an edited version of an email I wrote to a coaching colleague about a revelation I had at training last night.  The simple version: games might be better for skill development because there’s a positive pressure to perform (i.e. beating the other team in the game, as opposed to just ‘being good at’ the drill).

I’ve noticed something interesting development of late…

I’ve been having the guys do passing technique practice in lines, working on pushing / spinning the ball across their bodies focusing on form while jogging down the field. Then I put them in a chaotic 8m square where the same groups work on passing, running from one side to the other, with groups on other sides of the square doing the same.  So there’s lots of traffic as they cross back and forth constantly.  The interesting observation:  fewer dropped balls in the chaotic square!  I’ve been reading some stuff on skill development and technique that suggests skill (being the application of techniques, under pressure) is better developed in ‘game-like’ situations, so for rugby not just with opposition but also with more than one variable.  It seems my guys, at least, thrive on the pressure! (I suspect that there’s not a lot of interest in the low-pressure drill – noting that I’m the sort of coach who doesn’t shout at or punish mistakes, asking players to be self-motivated to improve.)

One of the coaches I follow on Twitter asked a while back if perfect technique was necessary?  I’ve started to think that as long as the ball travels efficiently (i.e. not lofted, wasting time) and is on target (i.e. not ‘at’ the player, but in front of his outstretched hands), I’m not sure it matters for most passes. The speed of transfer is more important than whether or not a push pass is wobbly.  Hell, Justin Marshall barely threw a nice looking pass his whole career!  🙂

The other thing that really has struck me, influenced again by my Twitter connections is the use of games. I’ve always liked using games, but have probably had more drills or skill development activities with a game at the end.  Last night I ran a skill development activity – a 5 v 4 (later 5 v 5) scenario where the defence chose obvious patterns and the attack had to read them (starting with backs turned, then coming forward on a cue) and pick the best way to exploit the pattern they saw. They were pretty good at it, but often slower than is ideal.  I suspect that they were really scanning deeply (which is a new challenge to most, especially the forwards, who used to just run blindly forward) and taking time to think and communicate rather than act intuitively.  But when we went to the double-touch game they were much more intense and often exploited poor defence / supported the break more quickly than in the skill dev. activity. Some were even starting to recognise angles and coming out of their ‘swim lanes’ looking for work! I’m beginning to think that the game, with the added pressure / reward of ‘going for the win’ improves their focus and causes them to act much quicker rather than being ponderous (at best) or somewhat apathetic in a drill.

The thing I tweeted about which got quite a few retweets was that I didn’t say much the whole practice, and really left it up to them. I presented a ‘problem’, elicited a few possible solutions from them, made some clarifications to their input to keep the language / concepts simple, and let them figure it out themselves.  I think, most importantly, I told them all of this in the debrief, reminding them that I don’t care about the mistakes made, but was really happy to see so much quality and praised quite a few individuals for the leaps they’d made in their decision-making. Above all, they have fun with games. These are adult men and I still get a few saying “Aww, just one more try!” when I say practice is over!

Damn I love this coaching thing!  🙂

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Here’s a game I created that’s become popular with all three teams I’ve coached since I came up with it last year. Rapid Fire Touch is 4-handed – i.e. two different people to stop a ball carrier, after the first two-handed, the ball carrier can still run but can’t score.

  • When scored upon, the defending team leaves the field of play immediately and the attacking team can attack the opposite goal line. All players from that team must cross the goal line before joining their team mates.
  • When touched by two different players, the team in possession leaves the field of play immediately and the defending team all must cross the nearest goal line before attacking in the opposite direction.

  • In both cases, the new team enters the field of play at midfield immediately, matching up and communicating their responsibilities.

This game can be played with 3, 4, or 5 (find this to be the maximum to ensure everyone’s involved) per team. Four-handed touch encourages ball carriers to attack space and create full line-break or half-break scenarios.  It’s main focus is evasive footwork, ball movement and support lines, not to mention communication in both attack and defence. The width of the playing area can vary. Wide encourages support lines and communication as ball carriers are more likely to make breaks or pull defenders well out of position (remembering that two defenders are needed to stop one from scoring). Narrower might be better for advanced players to work on timing of the pass and run and more challenging creation of space / opportunities.  This works really well in a gym for winter training.

Encourage to communicate early, pass to space, take on defenders with evasive footwork and supporting runners to be loud and pick clever pursuit lines. Faster the better as taking away space gives the opposition less time to adjust! Great for developing a fast, open style of play training communication, seeing and taking space, support and fitness as well.

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I recently saw this great clip featuring French player Francois Trinh-Duc’s doubly-clever move to set up a try for his team mates.  What’s on play here is a sound knowledge of the laws of the game not just by Trinh-Duc, but by his team mates as well.

1. The player in white kicks the ball out ‘on the full’, meaning that the lineout will go to the blue team back from a line where the ball was kicked because the player doing the kicking was in front of his 22m line.  (This also is true if the ball kicked was passed back to a player inside the 22m by someone outside of it.)

2. To ensure this happens, as it’s probably unclear to Trinh-Duc if the ball is truly going to go out, he straddles the touch line BEFORE making his catch.  Simply put, he did not carry or knock the ball out.  By having at least one foot in touch when he caught the ball, he was already out, and as such made the ball that was kicked by his opponent out.

There are a lot of situations like this that can be very confusing even to veterans of the game, largely because we rarely see them.  There’s a great document from Australia that outlines pretty much every possibility, including both feet in, one in and one out, and while jumping in the air.  It can be found by clicking THIS LINK.

3. Knowing that a quick throw is possible before the lineout is set, Trinh-Duc runs forward to where the assistant ref marks the spot that the lineout will occur.  Up until this season, the quick throw could only take place from the spot the ball crossed the touchline or further back toward one’s own goal line.  This year, as can be seen in this video, the quick throw can take place at the ‘line of touch’ – or where the lineout will occur when kicked out on the full.  Explanations and further examples from the IRB Laws site can be found HERE and HERE.

4. He makes a quick throw – which must go 5m – to a team mate, who sets up another for the score.  Trinh-Duc could have taken the quick throw from where the ball went out.  But knowing that it’s now possible to take the throw from where the lineout will occur, he took the opportunity to run it forward and gain some free metres (as well as get behind most of the opposing players who’d chased the kick).  This can be a bit confusing if you’re new to quick throw-ins, but the new Law trial actually makes more sense than the way it was before because the options then were take a quick throw down field or wait and have a proper lineout upfield.  Now players have the option of making a quick throw anywhere from where the lineout should occur all the way back to one’s own goal line.

Courtesy:  irblaws.com

Quick throw can occur anywhere from kicker in blue back to the goal line.

This is entirely possible at any level, but players wanting to make a quick throw must use the same ball and it has to be taken by the person who fetches the ball (not chucked to someone else who takes the quick throw).  Catching the ball cleanly before this happens makes setting up quick throws that much easier.  Hopefully refs at your level are aware of these things as well!

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Here are five more things I learned over the course of my coaching career that just sort of occurred from trial and observation:

1. Ball in two hands.  The first sport I played seriously, and it’s commonplace in that game for ball carriers to ‘tuck it away’ and just run.  In rugby, there are people beside / behind you to pass to in order to keep the play flowing.  Keeping the ball in two hands not only allows you to get the ball away quicker (rather than, first, having to grab it with the second hand – even fractions of a second count!), but it also keeps the defence second guessing.  After watching a lot more rugby, I realised that defenders would hesitate in front of the ball-in-two-hands attacking player, not being absolutely sure of what he was going to do.  Conversely, a player who ‘tucks it away’ isn’t near as likely to get a pass off – unless his name is Sonny Bill Williams! – so defenders are more confident rushing to complete the tackle.

2. Preservation of space.  In football, the ball carrier’s only job was to gain as much territory as possible – essentially by himself, with the help of some planned / spontaneous blocking.  In rugby, it’s not an individual effort and the game is best played if contact can be avoided.  Creation of space through deception, like a switch run, came quickly to me as it reminded me of the running / blocking lines of football, but preservation of space is, I think, unique to the continuity of rugby.  If I can’t immediately get through right here, but there’s lots of space to my left – along with a team mate – I’m better off holding a straight line to keep (or preserve) the defender here and make a timely pass to put into space my team mate over there.  In football, a running back would probably try and turn that corner himself.  A couple of years ago, I was delighted to see footage from an old football game from the leather helmet days in which three passes were made from the line of scrimmage to the wide receiver.  The quarter back passed to running back, who broke the line and passed to a slot back; he drew attention from the defenders and passed to the wide receiver who scored in the corner.  I’d have LOVED to play football in the 1920s or 1930s, especially when the forward pass was relatively new and not widely used.  The opportunities for a tactically minded coach / player must have been limitless!

3. Predictable defending.  This one came quite early.  If I stand in a certain spot, or make a run at a certain angle a good defender is going to mirror that.  If he doesn’t, well then great, I’m gone.  But even if he does, my alignment can provide opportunities for others.  For example, if a player closer to the ball than you has incredible quickness, standing a little wider in alignment will draw the defender wider (a good defender, that is) giving your quick-stepping team mate more room to beat his opponent to the outside.  If the defender doesn’t slide, you have that advantage.  It also doesn’t stop there.  If your team mate makes a ‘half break’ into the space, but draws the attention of your defender, then call for the pass as your man has just created an opportunity for you.  Defenders act and react to attacking players, providing opportunities.  If they don’t, your job is even easier.

4. Diamond support.  Support is one of the principles of the game.  It’s essential for continuity, another principle.  One person in support is good, two great, but three is wonderful.  Instead of shuffling the ball in a draw-and-pass motion, which allowed the defence to close down space, I favour a quick pass to not only get the ball to someone with plenty of space in front of them, but also with plenty of support around them.  From a scrum, one of my most favoured attacks is a strike run via the outside centre – who I like to be not only fast and quick, but also with a keen eye for space and tactical sense to set up his/her team mates if the situation warrants.  Not only does the outside centre channel have lots of space available on the left and right, but there’s also another centre, a winger, and a full back in support – at least!

5. Space behind committed defender.  I’m surprised it took me so long to figure this one out, given the predictable defending and preservation of space aspects came so quickly.  Essentially, the defender committed to either a ball carrier or a support option should be an easy target to attack – not the player him/herself, but the space behind.  Example 1:  Fly half makes a straight run at his opposite number, fixing him in place.  Inside centre makes a sudden angular run at the space behind the defending fly half and calls for a short pass, slipping in behind him.  This is called an Unders Line, I suppose running ‘under’ the defensive coverage.  The opposite, an Overs Line, involves a sudden angular run by the ball carrier, not the support runner.  This is made easier, as mentioned above, when the supporting player has provided enough width for the ball carrier to make such a move.  A good defender should probably stick with his man in this situation and rely upon his inside man to cross cover the sudden line break, allowing the ball carrier a better chance of getting away.  If not, and the outside defender has to step in and help, the ball carrier needs to be wary of his support and get the ball away as he’s just created a two on one.

 

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I’m not sure where I heard it – because I like to give credit where it’s due (possibly J. Greenwood or Villepreux) – but I’m currently working on a concept that the entire game can be broken down into a series of creating TWO v ONE situations.

I’ve made this a ‘big concept’ for the women’s team I’m currently coaching, to ween them off the slavish dedication on set moves given to them by previous coaches (and some, from provincial and national programs). The whole strategy on my part is to simplify the game for them and, in this case, to get them to start reading and reacting or creating opportunities for themselves. The 2 v 1 idea is that sudden and determined movements by either the ball carrier or support runner can catch the defender(s) off guard at least a fraction of a second such that the attacking team maintains the advantage whatever the defence do – anywhere. It’s not just about finding over-lap situations, but creating 2 v 1s in even tight space. The key words are SUDDEN and DETERMINED, as I remind them that ‘long’ and obvious moves and half-assed attempts give the advantage of time and initiative right back to the defence.  The rest comes down to the basic elements:  preserve or create space, communication, timing and quality of execution.

A sudden move, with ball still in two hands creates possibilities for carrier and support runners

But the important difference from traditional 2 v 1 drills in training (for adults), is that we’ve gone well away from doing 2 v 1 in a box. This already is easy and almost robotic for them as they’ve mastered ‘draw and pass’ – but early in the season, couldn’t create those for themselves unless it was trying to achieve it out wide. Earlier in my coaching career I learned that closed skills don’t easily translate into dynamic situations, so we even do our ‘basic’ training of 2 v 1s in a 4 v 4 environment. The conditioning factor to go from easy to challenging, then, is space. We start with wide channels so the spaces and angles used are obvious, for a few minutes only, and then reduce the space significantly, adding a scrum half pass or a kick back, a loose ball, etc. to make it more game relevant to game situations.  (The one I dislike the most is where two attackers and one defender run backwards and loop into a small box.)

As Dan Cottrell’s recent article also so rightly professed, ‘failure’ should not be taken so literally, but treated and analysed as an opportunity to learn. I challenge all players in the unit to tell me what they saw, what their decision was, what communication was used (if at all!), and how they might have better acted if given the chance to experience those conditions again.  Another way of doing it is to get those waiting to go give immediate constructive feedback to those who just participated, not only providing guidance but also allowing them to think about and process how they will act next. Acquiring this knowledge and skill does take time, and requires a lot of thought on the part of the players because I’m not so quick to give them the answers.  But I think those challenges early in the season allow them to become more critical and analytical so that later in the season they actually tell me what they should have done before I even ask, if they’re making many mistakes at all!

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Photo courtesy of Craig White

Despite our team running in five tries yesterday, I didn’t think our backline clicked as well or as often as I hoped it would.  I put this down to first game after a long break, though I think it’s time I had them take another step in becoming better ‘thinking’ rugby players.  Their alignment wasn’t bad, their determination and ability with ball in hand quite good, but what was off was their timing.  In some cases the outside centre was too deep to be of use and in others the inside centre was too flat to be a useful passing option, and vice versa.  I forgave them because on defence they were great, but also because the former is still young and learning the game and the latter is very new to our team.  Their challenge this week, and for the coming weeks as this awareness won’t come instantly, will be to learn more about each member of their unit as rugby players.

One of the best backlines I’ve ever seen live was the one I played with (as a front row forward) when I was 18 and playing for a local club.  All but one had been playing school rugby together for four years and they were good mates off the field – the outlier being from another school, but who was on the left wing.  They knew each other’s abilities and tendencies to the point that they played off each other intuitively, and rarely needed a planned move to break the gain line or score a try.  So what sort of things did they know about each other that made them so effective?

  1. Quality of each player’s personal skills... meaning how long each player could pass, and the level of accuracy they possessed.  As I say to my players prior to working on spin passing, if you know the player beside you can make a long pass, then you can align yourselves much wider, opening larger gaps between defenders (because most good defenders will line up with you – if not, then you could beat them around the outside!)
  2. Average speed and quickness. Note that speed = straight line sprinting, while quickness = is, generally speaking, agility, lateral movement, and acceleration off the mark.  You might have to lie a little flatter OR start your run earlier to be able to keep up with someone who’s faster than you, or the opposite if you’re faster than the ball carrier.
  3. Preferred means of receiving a pass. This primarily refers to the way fly halves take the ball, but fly halves aren’t always on their feet, ready in the first receiver position.  Who often steps in for them?  How do they like to take a pass – standing flat, big run from deep, little run flat and out, etc?  This knowledge helps the support runners time their run.  Maybe the receiver has a certain physical trigger that will help you start your run, or maybe you have to consider how her tendencies in this area affect timing, so you might have to consider what the previous passer does.  The big one here is running vs standing and flat vs deep.  Each has it’s advantages, and I think the disadvantages of each are accentuated by support players not knowing how to time their runs accordingly.
  4. Tendencies with ball in hand. This is related to the last point, but deals more with what the ball carrier tends to do when they have the ball and are going to keep it for a certain length of time.  For example, when I play touch I often end up as first receiver and I prefer to stand flat and make a sudden move at the inside shoulder of the player outside of me.  I’m deceptively quick so am going for the line break, but if it’s not on I’m hoping (key word!) my support runner realises that I’ve just made him a hole and I’ll look to give him a flat pass into space.  If he’s too deep, then no worries I’ll still give a leading pass and we’ll try an attack somewhere else.  This is why I like having a 12 who can also scan, think and pass in contact rugby as this often happens against congested defences.  If he’s too early then I’ll use him as a decoy and fire a longer, slightly deeper – but still leading pass – to the next person.  As another example, we have a wonderful outside centre who’s both quick and fast and can beat most defenders on her first move.  I’ve been using this an example to get the other backs thinking about how they can run off her.  The winger needs to realise that her defender will often get drawn into this break and needs to be ready to call for a pass before the centre is closed down.  Alternatively, our full back could find an excellent hole in the defending 13’s channel and call for an inside ball as she turns to chase our centre.  It’s these sort of tendencies players need to be aware of so they don’t have to react as much to things as they develop, but can predict what is going to happen based upon prior knowledge.
  5. Agreed-upon method of communication. This goes without saying, and I’ve talked about it a lot in this blog already, but I can’t stress enough that communication not only needs to be present but also must be short (no sentences, just monosyllabic words and small phrases), relevant (not: “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” but “On your left.  Pop… NOW!”) and even to provide advice (“Hold it! GO!” … when someone’s about to pass, but has a huge hole in front of them, or “See [name of someone out wide]” when there’s a clear and imminent opportunity elsewhere.)

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‘Running Rugby’ has become a bit of buzz phrase in recent years to describe a certain brand of rugby that supposedly only a few teams play.  This reminds me of edu-babble or other jargon that really tries to make something old sound new and exciting.  Surely rugby players weren’t jogging back in the old days!

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about ‘taking it easy‘ in attack, and I hope for those of you who read it, the message wasn’t that rugby should be played at a slower pace.  If I could put that whole article into one sentence, I’d say that there are fractions of a second in games when slowing down can allow players the opportunity to read what’s going on in front of them and turn on the jets with a clearer decision.  This week I send our team a cool compilation of Welsh tries from the last 40 years …

… lots of great examples of ‘running rugby’ in that video, and as it covered four decades, it’s probably safe to say that having a go at the defence at high speed is not something new.  I think this video must have inspired my coaching partner, Bill, a man who lived through each of those eras and who has nothing but praise for the Welsh game, despite being English.  He gave our team a straight-talk explanation of ‘running rugby’ at our last session that, I think, really inspired some players to finally have a go at the line.

His key points (paraphrased – I should have recorded it!) were this:

  • If the space is there, run forward into it with determination.
  • Don’t pass for the sake of passing, pass because someone else has more space in front of them than you do
  • …. in both cases, we want to go forward – the basic principle of the game – not sideways, thereby nullifying supporting players’ opportunities.
  • Support runners need to actually support, and that means sprinting into position to be a passing option for the ball carrier, not standing back admiring the ball carrier’s break.

To me, he added that he’d rather lose a game by a close score if both teams played with intensity and many tries were scored.  We both agreed that low-scoring games which seem to crawl along aimlessly are not fun for spectators or players, but we continue to see games like that because teams lack the creativity, belief in their abilities, faith in each other’s abilities, and/or passion.  Any one or combination of those, I feel, contributes to boring, ineffective rugby.

But we all run when playing rugby, right?  I think there’s a difference in what everyone aims to do and what good teams actually do with regard to running the ball.  Maybe it’s worth a comparison:

  1. Effective teams run forward at spaces.  Ineffective teams run forward aimlessly.
  2. Effective players run with the ball in two hands, knowing that the pass should always be ‘on.’  Ineffective players will tuck the ball away selfishly and go on their own.
  3. Effective players will run at space knowing that if they cannot make a clean break, they will likely have drawn more than one defender, ensuring that one team mate, somewhere is unmarked and therefore must not ‘die’ with the ball.  Ineffective players have no conciousness of the consequences of their actions.

I think those are three key things about running rugby that are simple enough for small children, but which are often forgotten by adults at the highest level.  Rugby is easier when there is time and space to scan, think, and act upon a plan of attack. I suggested in the earlier article, that taking a second to downshift gears can allow an attacker more time to scan, but it’s important to note that (s)he doesn’t want to lose the advantage of initiative. Today, I watched a poor Welsh team with no initiative go – surprise, surprise – nowhere in attack.  I don’t think slowing down is a sin, but one should have been having a crack at the defence before trying to lull them into a false sense of security.  Now I also think it’s risky to run at a team at breakneck pace, especially if the support isn’t there and the ball carriers aren’t that confident in their own abilities, but what impressed me most about our team this week was their confidence with ball in hand.  They took the ball to the line fast and with determination, support in position and with great communication.  While the pace meant they had little time themselves to change the plan, this was also true for the defence – again, time and space making rugby easier, but this time on the other side of the ball.  They took that away from the defence, and with initiative and support on their side, sudden changes in movement or ball carrier meant the time-starved defenders would always be one step behind them.

That’s running rugby in its purest form.

 

Edit:  I don’t normally do addendums to posts, but I just wrote something on a forum about the ineffectiveness of Welsh centre James Hook yesterday and thought it applied here to further explain my point about running ‘at’ the defence:

“He needs to be reigned in a bit and told to focus on attacking with determination and just let things happen.  It seemed like he was always trying to do something too special or as if he was taking time to ‘plan’ and as a result it always so slow to develop, ending up coming to nought.  For me, the best attackers take it forward with more pace than Hook did and then perform ‘the magic’ more instinctively, as defenders panic and make their decision, and less … as if it were ‘let’s take a second and see how this plays out’ (can’t think of a word at the moment), which allows defenders time and doesn’t really put them under pressure.

It’s what we were working on in our own training this week.  Take the defenders on at pace and they have to commit to something – an individual, a certain body position, up out of the line, etc. – and then you can act as a result of what he or they chose to do.  At times, Hook – and Wales – took the ball forward with no real purpose such that England didn’t have to ‘commit’ defensively, just hold their shape and defend easily.”

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